German Immigration to the U.S. in the 1800s

This is the best article about German immagration to the U.S. in the late 1800's, I have located so far. It is specifically about Wisconsin. I have removed much of the information that would not apply to central Missouri.

German Immigration to the U.S. in the 1800s

Of all the nations of Western Europe, Germany played the greatest role in the peopling of the United States. Even in colonial times Germans constituted the largest non-English-speaking group of settlers. Over the years the numbers of Germans Crossing the Atlantic in search of new homes, new opportunities, and new freedoms steadily increased, most dramatically in the years between 1820 and 1910, when nearly five and a half millions arrived.

Most of these newcomers settled in the North Central states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Iowa Missouri, Nebraska, North and South Dakota and Wisconsin.

German farmers provided a sizable and stable rural population; German cultural societies and institutions such as the musical groups called Liederkranz, the Turnverein, and the Free Thinkers flourished in many communities.

Although it is popularly believed that the political upheavals of 1848 were primarily responsible for a large part of this German mass migration, the situation was historically more complex. Until the latter part of the nineteenth century there was no such country as "Germany". Instead, hundreds of small administrative units existed, controlled in a feudalistic manner by a hierarchy of princes, grand dukes, dukes, margraves, abbots, electors, barons, and counts. By 1815 these units had been consolidated into some thirty different states, either voluntarily, or through the aggression of the more powerful states such as Prussia. But all were mere political arrangements: religion, language, types of agriculture, cultural and architectural traditions, and forms of government differed from region to region.

For centuries the social system of the Germanic regions remained feudalistic and unchanging. Farmers were virtually serfs of their overlords; artisans abided by the ancient regulations of the medieval crafts guilds. So regimented was life that each type of agricultural worker, each type of artisan from each region, province, or state could be readily distinguished by his distinctive dress, made of homespun materials and dyed by hand. It was a world aptly described by the old saying, “Everybody in his place and a place for everybody.”

The French Revolution, with its liberating ideals, abolished this rigid system altogether and led to changes which set the stage for the eventual migrations. Agricultural reforms, industrialization, the rise of capitalism, a 38 per cent increase in the birth rate, a disastrous potato blight and other crop failures in the period between 1846 and 1853 all conspired to produce an army of dispossessed farmers. Artisans, displaced by factory workers, roamed the countryside in search of employment. To such people America did indeed seem the land of hope and shining promise.

German emigration to the United States occurred in three major waves. The first, which came mainly from southwestern Germany in the years 1845-1855 , consisted of 939,149 men, women, and children, 97 per cent of whom came from the states of Nassau, Hesse, the Rhineland, Pfalz, Baden, Wurttemberg, or Bavaria, areas in which the plight of small, inefficient, overpopulated and often mortgaged farms threatened by repeated crop failures and the potato blight made calamity a certainty. Although a flow of emigrants continued, the second wave did not break until ten years later, when 1,066,333 people reached the United States between 1865 and 1873. Most of these came from northwestern Germany, specifically from the states of Sehleswig-Holstein, Ost Fnesland, Hanover, Oldenburg, and Westphaha, an area of prosperous middle sized grain farms. Beginning in the 1850's the influx of cheap American wheat had begun to depress the world market to such an extent that by 1865, with the American Civil War over and with a prospect of a continuing decline in grain prices, many owners of moderately sized farms, fearing foreclosure, decided to sell out while they could and depart for America with enough cash to begin anew. In addition, the area's industrial centers were filled with unemployed former agricultural workers anxious to build a new life abroad. The vast majority of the emigrants, according to one historian, came from the lower-middle economic strata: "people who had a little and had an appetite for more "

Note from Owen: From the 2 paragraphs above, I would know that Charles Rutz 1820-1912 immigrated to the U.S. at the very end of the first wave.
I might guess that within the period of 1846 to 1854 his woodworking skills had been displaced by industrialization and perhaps after wandering around north central Europe looking for employment he ended up in the Prussian army.

The third tide of German emigrants began in 1880, coinciding with the beginning of the great influx of southern and eastern Europeans. Of the 1,849,056 persons involved in this migration, which lasted until 1893, the vast majority came from northeastern Germany, an area dominated by Prussia but including the states of Pornerania, Upper Silesia, and Mecklenburg. This was the domain of the Prussian aristocracy or Junker class which had led the progressive unification and industrialization of the region while swallowing up 21,000 peasant holdings between 1816 add 1859, thus, in the name of "consolidation," creating a land-less agricultural proletariat whose only recourse lay in departure.

Fortunately for those leaving Europe in the middle of the nineteenth century, many of the vicissitudes that had plagued earlier emigrants had been eased . Steam and sailboat service to major ports had been regularized, and the terrors of confronting an unknown land had been reduced by floods of information about America in newspapers, travel books, immigration guides, and promotional tracts. More importantly, improved postal services brought the reassurance of glowing letters from friends and relatives already established in the New World.

But even so, the human costs involved in the decision to emigrate remained high and departure scenes were usually heart-rending, as many German immigrants to Wisconsin were to testify. A member of the Schuette family, who departed Germany for Manitowoc County in 1848, wrote: "The neighbors and fiends were on hand to say a last farewell and tears flowed in profusion (since) anyone leaving for America was considered about to pass into eternity." Sometimes bitterness towards those "deserting" the homeland split families apart, and on occasion the separation proved too much for those left behind. Jacob Eifler of Sheboygan recalled that his grandfather "passed away from grief and heartache" two years after members of his family set sail for the United States.

For many, the passage across the Atlantic was the longest voyage of their lives. Some had never been out of their native districts. Almost always they viewed the harbor scene with wonderment and awe. One Schuette family member described Bremen, one of the principal ports of departure: "On arrival at this seaport we saw for the first time what we had longed to see, ships of all nations, in all colors, with symbolic figureheads and majestic spars - oh how different from our inland town! What a grand and enchanting picture!"

A journey by sail across the Atlantic took between one and one and one-half months. Steam power cut the time in half. Judging by their diaries, reminiscences, and letters, most immigrants seem to have had similar shipboard experiences - poor food, sea sickness. deaths, births, disease, crowded sleeping quarters, joys, sorrows, and hopes. Generally they carried foodstuffs along with their scanty possessions. One German traveler advised bringing zwieback, dried meat, and prunes, as well as vinegar "which will be useful aboard ship to mix with the ill smelling drinking water." Even so, meals were monotonous, sometimes insufficient, and often badly prepared.

Boredom and sea sickness were the two most common complaints. Forty-four-year-old Johann Diederiehs, bound from Elberfeld to Manitowoc with his wife and four children in 1841, wrote in his diary: "Only a few days at sea and how bored we are with life on a ship." On September 23 he noted: "Sea sickness in full swing, and it is amusing to see how big strong men writhe and choke and roar

Storms added an element of danger, as well as intensifying the pervading sea sickness. Of one such storm Diederichs wrote in his diary: "Saturday 9 October: Doleful awakening or rather doleful waking, for there was no thought of sleep since the spirit was too agitated over shattered hopes. Stormy southwest winds have met we, the sea is running high, a sail has been torn by the force of the gale, and now we are drifting, the Lord knows how long. I am completely downcast from the long duration of the journey."

But the transatlantic crossing was not all suffering and dogged endurance. Shipboard friendships blossomed, and since the majority of the passengers were young, on warm nights there was much socializing on deck and the singing of folk songs. A never-to-be-forgotten thrill was the first sight of the shores of their new home, heightened by the knowledge that the initial and most trying stage of their voyage was ended. Commonly, arrival in New York proved a shock as an army of con men and fraudulent agents of all types descended on the newcomers, some offering to sell Wisconsin "farmlands" on the spot. "One must guard against dealing with . . . others in New York," Diederichs noted in his diary.

By far the most effective stimuli to German immigration were the unsolicited testimonials of recently arrived settlers. Immigrants wrote back to their friends, relatives, and neighbors in the Old Country, describing their new lives in America. This was information to be trusted and acted upon. From his new home in Waukesha County, J. K. Meidenbauer wrote to his sister in Germany in 1849: "You will next ask: is it really good in America...? and I can give you the answer, from my full conviction . . . Yes, it is really good here. I would advise my sister Barbara to come over with her intended for she can do better than in Germany. There are no dues, no titles here, no taxes . . . no (mounted) police, no beggars.” Such so-called "America Letters" prompted hometown "clubs" in Europe to send emissaries to Wisconsin in search of land suitable for settlement. New Holstein in Calumet County was settled in this fashion when a group of Free Thinkers, impressed by enthusiastic letters and newspaper reports from their United States agent, emigrated as a body.

Economic factors, while the most important, were not alone in attracting Germans to Wisconsin. Religious leaders and institutions also played key roles. For example, as early as the 1840's, a colony of Old Lutherans from the Oder River Valley in Brandenburg and Pomerania settled as groups in Jefferson and Dodge counties and in Friestadt in Ozaukee County, where, once established, they were joined by other co-relgionists in succeeding years. The Old Lutherans were a part of a body of religious nonconformists who had refused to bow to the will of the Prussian Kaiser when he united various Protestant churches under the Reformed banner. Led by several of their pastors, small groups of Old Lutherans began emigrating after 1837. One group, which settled in Buffalo, New York, sent back such encouraging reports that in 1839 forty families, under the leadership of Heirrieh von Rohr, an ex-military officer, came over from Pomerania.

Other communities also existed in heavily forested areas of southern and eastern Wisconsin, leading some observers to conclude that German immigrants preferred dense woodlands. Other observers, however, have demonstrated that the supposed Germanic predilection for forested areas was more a matter of the time of their arrival and the availability of cheap government land not too distant from the existing transportation facilities and the city of Milwaukee. Then, too, the immigrant needed a certain amount of woodland to provide building material for houses, animal shelters, fences, and for fuel. One German pioneer explained succinctly why he chose a wooded area for his new home: "On the open land there are farms with 100 acres sown in wheat .... I do not want to buy there because I know what a scarcity of wood means, for I experienced that in Germany."

Even though many immigrant letters advised potential settlers to purchase cleared lands with existing homes, few German pioneers had sufficient capital to do so. As a result, the majority of the recent arrivals had to spend part of their first season in Wisconsin constructing a dwelling, using raw materials taken from the forest, first in the form of logs, then in the form of lumber. Johann Diederichs described the home he built: "Our log house is 25 feet long and 16 feet wide, and at present consists of only one room, which I shall later transform into two .... it is one and a half stories high .... We get to our bedroom on the second floor with the help of a ladder, having yet had no time to build stairs ...."

Building a house took about four weeks, often with the assistance of neighbors. In this early stage, bartering took the place of cash. Logs were common items of trade, and in one case a hundred feet of logs could be traded for fifty feet of boards. Farm produce was also a common medium of exchange. Having secured a roof over his family's heads, the German immigrant turned his full attention to felling trees and clearing enough land for a subsistence garden and later for the larger scale farming which would enable him to enter the cash economy as soon as possible. Most of these initial "farms" were hardly more than large gardens. In the words of one German farmer, "The earth between the stumps is freed from roots as far as practicable, the earth tilled, and the potatoes are inserted." Johann Diedsichs described the state of his farm as it was in 1849: "I now have cleared two acres, part of which I intend to use as a garden and on part of which I shall plant potatoes, corn, and beans."

Clearing the land was backbreaking work, and the physical effort involved in removing the numerous stubborn stumps impressed German farmers to the extent that "they all let the stumps stand in their fields . . . that is the right way." Suckers grew up around the stumps as they awaited later removal.

Livestock on this early farm operation consisted of a few swine, oxen, chickens, and perhaps a cow and a calf, obtained either through purchase or barter. On his arrival in Manitowoc County, Johann Diederichs wryly observed that his livestock consisted of "only a dog and a cat." Germans consistently expressed surprise at the American custom of allowing their stock to wander about unprotected, even during winter. "It is disgraceful the way they (cattle and swine) are neglected and left without protection." wrote Wilhelm Dames in the late 1840's. "Hence they lie all through the snow, frost, and rain."

The role of the German woman throughout the pioneer era can-not be overestimated. In addition to bearing and caring for children, women had constantly to prepare meals without the benefit of many basic necessities. Tending the garden, the major source of the family's food supply, took much of the woman's time, in addition to which she was expected to work in the wheat or corn fields alongside the men, for the European practice of women working in the field was a cultural transfer from the Old Country. "Back to work again accompanied by the good mother and Mrs. Kohl to aid us in the fields," Diederichs wrote, "until after sundown ...." in fact, everything involved women's labor, unless the task proved to be beyond their strength.

Germanic pioneers adopted native American crops almost immediately. On evidence of the manuscript census records, Germans began using and planting corn soon after their arrival. They adapted equally well to the local scheme of agricultural economics and quickly entered the market mainly by raising and selling wheat. During the Period 1840-1890 wheat was king in Wisconsin, the primary cash crop of the frontier. Immigrant guides stressed the advisability of planting wheat. Primitive farming methods did not hinder its growth; it yielded a quick marketable return for a small capital outlay, needed no complex machinery for its cultivation, stored easily, and shipped well, despite the poor roads of the day. But though Germans specialized in wheat, they grew other crops as well, sold wood from their woodcuts, and acquired as much livestock as they could. By contrast, many of their Yankee neighbors had settled on prairie lands which they transformed into wheat plantations through the expenditure of large amounts of capital, going into debt to buy whatever else was needed, such as expensive horses rather than slow-moving oxen to enable them to keep ahead of next year's payments on their debts. "Wheat," reported Philander Judson, a Kenosha County farmer, in 1851, was "the talismanic word . . . as though there were no ways to make a purchase or pay a debt without a wheat crop."

However, changes were soon to occur. The spreading railroad network of the 1850's had assured the primacy of wheat growing in Wisconsin, bringing seaboard and European markets to the farmer's doorstep. But as railroads continued to expand northward and westward, new wheat-growing regions opened up, and continued high production drove prices steadily down. To keep growing wheat meant that additional outlays m time, effort, and manure would be necessary. Finally there came a point when wheat was no longer profitable, and many farmers became Convinced that they would do better to switch to different and more rewarding crops. Between 1860 and 1890 there was a slow shift in agricultural production. Transitional phases in the search for a new cash crop occurred as farmers experimented with hops, flax, sugar beets, sheep raising, tobacco, and sorghum before turning to dairying, as had the farmers of New York state decades before. Although wheat retained an important place, a new era of diversified cropping had arisen.

Other evidences of Germanic material culture brought to Wisconsin are difficult to come by. Immigrants traveled light. Bedding, a change of clothing, undergarments, wooden shoes, wooden slippers called pnntoffel, and high hopes were about all that could be carried. It was probably just as well that the immigrant did not bring an extensive wardrobe, for undoubtedly there was nativist pressure on them to conform to American dress. This was felt especially by the younger generation anxious to become Americanized. Writing to his mother in Germany in 1852, one young man said, "Dear mother, you ought to see me now with my new clothes, long black coat, black vest and trousers, choker, black silk hat, and my hair parted not only on the top but also on the back of the head! I suppose it looks funny, but then you must do as the Romans, or they will point at you: 'Look there, that Dutchman."' As with other immigrant groups, the Americanization of second-generation Germans progressed rapidly because younger settlers especially yearned to adopt and conform to American customs.

With the outbreak of the Civil War, German radicals, Forty-Eighters, Protestant liberals, Turners, and Free Thinkers generally rallied to support the antislavery cause and adopted pro-Union, pro-Republican, and pro-Lincoln stances, largely because of their previous struggles for social reforms in Europe.

However, not all Germans favored the Republican party, anti-slavery, or other reforms. Many German Catholics actively opposed these positions, as well as the North's involvement in the war. An-other group of dissenters were known as War Democrats, one of whom joined the Union Army but later expressed his cynicism about the war's aims in a letter to his wife in Wisconsin: "Dearest, take my word for it, the whole war from beginning to end is nothing but humbug and a swindle."
Please note - This article was in a booklet that was labeled by the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, Madison, 1977. There was/is no copyright protection notice in the booklet.